How To Make (Almost) Anything Go Viral


A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.

There are two schools of thought regarding how to make anything go viral. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes the importance of the messenger. In contrast, Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On proclaims that a properly structured message makes the messenger inconsequential. Which approach is correct?

As with most business strategies which migrate from the classroom to the real world, the “correct approach” involves combining the appropriate elements from multiple theories and applying them to your specific situation.

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The Faux Anti-Gladwell

Professor Berger’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, positioned Contagious as the scientific counter to the pop-culture Tipping Point. They hoped that taking a controversial stance against the immensely popular book would help Contagious cut through the clutter of the 11,000 business books which are published annually. Their approach was moderately success, as evidenced by the roughly 3,000 Google hits for the search: “The Tipping Point” & “Jonah Berger.”

When interviewed, Berger took a more diplomatic approach than that of his publishers, complimenting Gladwell, but in the same breath noting that, “I like to say in class, ‘Fifty percent of The Tipping Point is wrong. My job is to show you which half.’”

Igniting A Forest Fire

To make his point that the message matters more than messenger, Professor Berger writes, “…think about a forest fire. Whether it catches or not doesn’t depend on the size of the initial spark. It relies on having lots of trees that are ready to catch that spark.”

This is certainly a true statement. However, an errant spark from a campfire is far less likely to burn down a forest than a lightning strike which causes a large tree to burst into flames. Thus, both the message and its messengers should be considered when crafting a viral marketing campaign.

Gladwell Meets Berger

Mr. Gladwell broadly classifies the messengers which are best suited to help ignite a forest fire as: Connectors (uber-networkers which have a vast number of acquaintances they can influence), Mavens (information gathers who are ‘in the know’) and Salespersons (promoters who tell compelling stories).

Professor Berger breaks down the components of a highly viral message into six facets, using the acronym STEPPS. The description of each of these principles are from this 2013 talk Professor Berger gave at Wharton.

  • Social Currency: “It’s all about people talking about things to make themselves look good, rather than bad.”
  • Triggers: “Which is all about the idea of ‘top of mind, tip of tongue.’ We talk about things that are on the top of our heads.”
  • Emotion: “When we care, we share. The more we care about a piece of information or the more we’re feeling physiologically aroused, the more likely we pass something on.”
  • Public: “When we can see other people doing something, we’re more likely to imitate it.”
  • Practical: “Basically, it’s the idea of news you can use. We share information to help others, to make them better off.”
  • Stories: “How we share things that are often wrapped up in stories or narratives.”

If you craft a message which embodies Berger’s Contagious principles and then entice Gladwell’s Tipping Point messengers to promote it, you may find that both Berger and Gladwell are “correct.”

You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.

Image credit: Simon & Schuster

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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